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by Bill Gibron

20 Oct 2007


It’s been said that horror is cyclical, a looping genre tied to the current times and/or reigning cultural atmosphere. When politics are liberalized, more subtle scares are apparently in order. That may explain the sudden rise in Japanese ghost stories and bloodless supernatural sagas during the ‘90s. But put a Hawkish conservative in the White House, a man using his own source of scare tactics and military might to make his points, and the slice and dice gorezoning begins. When Reagan ruled the Oval Office, the slasher film saw mass murder made mainstream. George W. Bush and his War on Terror has itself resulted in torture porn and violence soaked exploitation. F/X master turned director Robert Kurtzman wants to use both formats to forge a post-millennial example of splatter slice and dice. It’s too bad then that Buried Alive isn’t more menacing. It’s got the fright formulas down pat. But unlike other retro fear factors, it can’t quite deliver all the gruesome goods.

Our story begins in typical Greed Decade fashion. A collection of college kids, including the nerd, the stud, the sorority chicks, and the daredevil dude with a few sordid secrets, all get into a Cadillac convertible and head out to the family mansion in the middle of the California desert. Seems great-granddad struck gold decades before, squirreled his strike away and – rumor has it – buried his first wife (a Native American) alive. A second marriage, a deadly fire, and a sole survivor have left the family cautious and cursed since then. Cousins Rene and Zane sense something is amiss in their genealogy, but can’t quite get a handle on the haunting. Even certified dweeb Phil and his Web savvy searching turns up little about the clan’s murder/massacre heritage. Of course, crude handyman Lester has his own theories about the legends. He believes the gold is still under the house, waiting to be discovered, and he’ll be damned if any rightful owner claims it first. Yet once everyone settles in for a night of beer, boot knocking, and various other nocturnal bumps, it is clear someone – or something - wants everyone dead.

Before cutting this inoffensive little scarefest down to size, it’s only fair to give Buried Alive some complimentary critical due. Kurtzman, who cut his teeth delivering life-like optical dread to such films as The Green Mile, From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, Bubba Ho-Tep, and Identity does have some minor directorial chops. Previous efforts like The Wishmaster and The Demolitionist suggest a way with action, thrills, and slaughter-based chills. So handling an old school slasher flick should be no problem – especially one as simplistic as this. Indeed, we have a lone specter, a few creative axe murders, and limited red herrings to confuse the creepiness. An additional bonus is the presence of the Saw man himself, Tobin Bell. Relegated to playing the seedy supporting role of Lester, this neo-terror icon does a delightful job of making his caretaker character a suspicious, tripwire threat. We’re never quite sure what to think when Lester is around, and Bell’s shaded performance definitely adds to the mystery. The rest of the cast is competent, if rather cardboard, with some obviously hired for their titillating topless talents.

And the story’s not too shabby either. The script, by Art Monterastelli, best known for such episodic TV as Nowhere Man, High Incident, and Total Recall 2070, stays true to the tenets of the iconic ‘80s format, giving us good set-up, successful cat and mouse, and a collection of clever kills. There’s even some tasty totem mumbo jumbo to keep everything nice and ethereal. In fact, had the film stuck with the mythological aspects of the narrative and avoided all the sexed up skirt chasing, along with all the silly sorority initiation hi-jinx, we’d have a much better movie. Kurtzman canters past these pitfalls with ease, working around then by using location, production design, and blood spatter to save the day.

Almost. Indeed, Buried Alive starts to run out of steam about 45 minutes into its running time. At that moment, we realize we’ve only had one death (a fresh and funky bisection), way too much implied incest (Rene and Zane are more wannabe copulating than kissing cousins) and an overdose of paranormal inference and hinting. Unlike the camp based creepshows that used the fireside ghost story as a means of getting the premise presented, Buried Alive has to wait for scene after endless scene of goofball grab ass before slowly explaining the secrets – and then, it’s left to the finale to finally wrap everything up. To their credit, Kurtzman and Monterastelli don’t shy away from giving us a rather malevolent conclusion. Unlike the standard ‘last girl’ motif, we get unexpected consequences and acts of outright cowardice. Even better, our rotting corpse monster achieves some sort of metaphysical comeuppance (though it could just be a backwards way of setting up a sequel).

And yet, something is not quite right with this movie. It builds to an intriguing apex, and then decides to coast on its own cleverness until the viewer catches it napping. Then it tries to save face by going gonzo - only by then, we’ve stopped feeling connected to the characters. Indeed, there are scenes (Zane “singing” his family’s harrowing history, a blond bimbette playing Bambi as she whines over a sprained ankle) which throw us off completely. We have no reason to hate these individuals – they’re merely aggravating in an obvious, arrested adolescent manner – and recognize their status as victim fodder early on. But Buried Alive seems stuck on cruise control once the party shifts to the desert. All the face hacking, throat cutting, back slashing arterial spray can’t give the atmosphere back its genre sea legs. We just keep watching things drift until the necessary denouement. Then the ending gives it one more horror happenstance try before the credits finally roll.

It’s hard to completely blame what’s on the screen. After all, the slasher film in general is deader than Rob Zombie’s fanboy affections. Successfully bringing the by-the-numbers murder movie back seems like an example of a fool’s paradise mixed with a psychopath’s less lucid brainstorm. Even the recent theatrical revamp attempt, the excellent Hatchet, needed excess amounts of self-referential humor and cartoonish claret to make its Freddy/Jason/Michael macabre work. Here, all Kurtzman and his followers have is a modicum of mood, a smattering of style, and a heaping helping of axe fu. If you’re nostalgic for those long ago Saturday nights when dates where dicey and an evening with a stack of generic VHS video nasties was more your social life speed, Buried Alive will really work on your wistfulness. Otherwise, fright fans should heed the typical artform warning. A revival is only as good as its original source material. And since slasher films aren’t Shakespeare, updating them can lead to a box office of discontent. This amiable attempt is not necessarily doomed, just derivative.

by Bill Gibron

19 Oct 2007


You want Friday the 13th. You’ll settle for Sleepaway Camp. What you get instead is this enjoyable little romp which marked the inauspicious debut of Miramax Films and soon to be indie icons Bob and Harvey Weinstein. While they will argue that they had the idea long before Momma Voorhees went ballistic on a bunch of oversexed counselors, The Burning remains an afterthought in the world of splatter, a slasher film destined to remains solidly second tier. Of course, it’s not the worst company to be considered in, standing alongside My Bloody Valentine, Terror Train, Prom Night, and any number of Carpenter/Cunnigham knock-offs. While originality has never been the genre’s strong suit, The Burning gets by on some interesting character dynamics, a sleeping bag full of sleaziness, nasty F/X, and a blatant brutality that few of its fellow scarefests could begin to imagine. 

Of course, Cropsy the caretaker with a penchant for hedge trimmer histrionics is not the classic spree killer we’ve come to expect from such entertainment endeavors. As manipulated by director Tony Maylam (a cinematic non-entity, before and since), our trench-coated terror with the garden implement accessory is the least inspired slayer around. All throughout The Burning, victims are carved up in the same, sharpened tool manner. We see a post-coital teen, or a far too irritating adolescent, and we innately understand that, soon, they’ll be staring at the business end of some agricultural pinking sheers. This leaves the interpersonal interaction, plot development, and Tom Savini’s make-up massacres as the sole motion picture mortar. While it ends up holding together, there will be those who find this slice and dice a tad too talky and a bit too basic to claim classic status.

The story begins with that horror film standard – a prank gone horribly awry. The cruel Cropsy, resident handyman of Camp Blackfoot, is apparently the boogeyman with a booze problem. For their tired teen revenge, some kids give him a literal trial by fire, and he ends up a semi-comatose mess in the local hospital burn unit. Fast forward five years, and the camp across the lake from the now-burnt out ruins is having its own issues. Counselors are scoring off each other left and right, some whiny, creepy kid keeps peeping on the more “pert” members of the crew, and Jason Alexander is everyone’s asexual comic relief. When numerous skin grafts fail to cure what ails Cropsy’s carcass, the incredibly semi-melted man goes bonkers. He kills a hooker, and then heads on over to his former stomping grounds. There, he intends to fold, spindle, and/or mutilate everyone who gets in his way – including one individual who may hold a key to what happened that fateful, bonfire-tinged night.

So the plot isn’t going to win points for abject novelty, and Harvey Weinstein’s wordsmithing (along with scribe help from Brad Grey and Peter Lawrence) can best be described as cookie cutter politically indirect, yet something about The Burning manages to resonate beyond such artistic limits. To call the characters crude would be doing a disservice to rapists, thugs, and borderline psychotics everywhere. This is the kind of movie that believes pressuring girls into sex is seduction, that voyeurism is ‘boys being boys’, and actual fornication conforms to the five second rule. The mangy melodramatics that play out between the cast creates the perfect abattoir atmosphere – after 45 minutes or so, we want to see each and every one of them hacked up like head cheese. Even better, we find ourselves rooting for Cropsy, hoping his silvery blades find their mark again and again.

Of course, fright fans may balk when they learn how backloaded the gore really is. After the initial fire fight (which is thrilling, if less than bloody) and the prostitution piercing, half of the movie plays out without a significant slaying. In the meantime, we have to wade through gratuitous sequences of actors playing perv and afterschool special heart to hearts. Unlike Friday the 13th or Sleepaway Camp, where a clear kid/counselor dynamic is established, there’s no solid line of age demarcation. On the one hand, you’ve got someone named Tiger who looks like a 12 year old laughing stock puffing away on her cigarettes. Equally unsettling is Larry Joshua’s Glazer, who has cornered the market on machismo meatballing. Sucking in his obvious gut and strutting around like a greasespot in need of some Shout, his big ham on campus stature belies his supposed young adult standing.

Thanks to the arrival of Tom Savini’s skin ripping specialties, however, none of this really matters. Unlike the work of fellow fright masters, this ex-Army photographer who served time snapping casualties in Vietnam knows a thing or two about realistic grue. Throughout the course of The Burning’s last half, we witness numerous human atrocities. Throats are slashed, necks are garroted, heads are hacked open, and fingers snipped off. While the logistics of taking out an entire raft of victims (from the standing position inside a canoe, no less) can be questionable, the sequence itself is sensational, a jump cut collection of clips and collected blood. The finale is also very effective, an axe into a head as impressive as Dawn of the Dead’s machete to zombie faceplate. One could argue that Savini saves this film, his skill in sluice leaving more of an impression than anything anyone else does here, but that would be selling The Burning short.

No, the most striking element one takes from this film is its no holds barred brutality. It’s rare, even in post-modern horror, to see killing portrayed with such cold, calculated aggression. While it may seem strange to say it, the Friday the 13th style slasher film was not out to bludgeon its audience with viciousness. Instead, it used mass murder as a kind of cinematic joyride, a rollercoaster combination of goofball highs and vivisectional lows. But once it gets going, The Burning is relentless. It’s like a car engine that takes forever turning over before racing down the road at 100 mph. Maylam makes the most of what he’s got, limited budget resulting in fascinating found locations, and there’s a disconnecting lack of mise-en-scene that keeps the suspense taut and the dread palpable. On the recent DVD release of the film, the director discussed his approach, sharing insights with film scholar Alan Jones. Savini himself even shows up, behind the scenes footage in hand, to discuss why he dumped Friday the 13th Part 2 to make this movie instead.

While it will never work it’s way into the upper echelon of fright flicks, The Burning remains a solid sample of ‘80s horror showboating. To call it generic would be too tame of an assessment, while archetypal awards it merits it fails to legitimately earn. No, if one was looking for a dictionary definition of the slasher genre, from its accident atrocity backstory to death for sexual congress, this film satisfies most of said motion picture facets. While Cropsy’s man in black motif may be an unsung iconic image, his story is sadly familiar. Thankfully, elements both within and outside the macabre manage to save the slaying day. 

by Bill Gibron

19 Oct 2007


For the weekend of 19 October, here are the films in focus:

Into the Wild [rating: 9]

Laced with amazing visual stunts, standout performances, and a perspective of our nation that’s nearly incomprehensible, we wind up tramping right along with our wide-eyed hero. We experience his dizzying highs…and everything that countermands such living in exile delights.

Wanderlust. For some, it’s an innate human attribute. The desire to explore. The need to put distance between your ‘here’ and your soon to be ‘there’. It’s a concept so tied up in what supposedly made America great and won the West for the rest of us (cue visions of Conestoga wagons rambling across a purple mountains majesty) that it seems practically unpatriotic to question its aimless designs. Like Jack Kerouac uncovering the counterculture beat within a surreally conservative post-War world, to hippy hitchhikers who made the nation one big truck stop, we’ve always given the vagabond some metaphysical leeway. Even as their label has switched from hobo to bum to social eyesore, one’s ability to roam free of responsibility has inspired and divined. It’s so formidable that it’s become the basis for songs, literature, and even personal philosophies. read full review…

Rendition [rating: 5]

Rendition is the result of such pompous over-pronouncements. It’s a well-intentioned screed undone by its desire to make all sides of its conflict saintly simplistic.

Okay, okay, we get it. In the name of the War on Terror, the United States has screwed up – BIG time. We’ve made massive military and diplomatic blunders, turned ourselves from last remaining superpower to international laughing stock, and allowed our Red State leanings to manifest themselves in the biggest set of civil rights abuses since African Americans were forced to drink from segregated water fountains. So here’s a message to Hollywood – enough already. We GET IT. Uncle Sam has ruined his reputation, our own government is complicit in major infractions of the Geneva Convention, and none of this is making us safer. So you’ve got plenty of targets to take out. Terrific. Just know this – you sell your media-minded position a lot more successfully when you remember to make your harangues entertaining. Without that, there’s just empty, obnoxious jingoism. read full review…

Things We Lost in the Fire [rating: 4]

As yet another example of a gifted foreign filmmaker – in this case, After the Wedding’s Dutch director Susanne Bier - fudging up their reputation by traveling over to Tinsel Town for some Western promise, Things We Lost in the Fire is Lifetime lite cinema masquerading as actual A-list excellence.

If you’re looking to make your own list of all the things that you, as an audience member, might loose after suffering through this horrid Halle Berry/Benicio De Toro weeper, here’s a small sampling to start you off: any sense of believable character; anything remotely resembling interpersonal reality; a lasting belief in the human spirit, especially that of a shrewish grieving widow; an acknowledgment for one’s personal stake in their own addiction; children who act like something other than sage-like sears; neighbors who are judgmental and callous about an ex-junkie’s plight; a father who cares more about a wife-beating butthead than the kids he’s carrying ice cream for; the ancient art of subtle motion picture drama; a lack of Oscar baiting performance histrionics; two hours of your precious entertainment time. read full review…

30 Days of Night [rating: 4]

This is a failed fright flick that is so inspired by Stephen King that the famous horror scribe should consider suing.

Nothing is more aggravating – from an audience/critic/film fan perspective – than a good idea done half-assed. Religious allegories usually come up short because they are afraid to tackle the outright dogma dictated by the material, while up until recently, action films were addled by the technological limits placed on the writer/director’s logistical imagination. In the genre realm, sci-fi and horror suffer equally. Again, until CGI stepped up cinema’s visual game, realizing spacey, speculative ideas was all motion control and matt paintings. But in the realm of fright, something more sinister is stifling successful scares – a real lack of vision on both sides of the camera. The re-vampire tale 30 Days of Night won’t be doing anything to change that anytime soon.read full review…

 

by Bill Gibron

18 Oct 2007


30 DAYS OF NIGHT (dir. David Slade)

Nothing is more aggravating—from an audience/critic/film fan perspective—than a good idea done half-assed. Religious allegories usually come up short because they are afraid to tackle the outright dogma dictated by the material, while up until recently, action films were addled by the technological limits placed on the writer/director’s logistical imagination. In the genre realm, sci-fi and horror suffer equally. Again, until CGI stepped up cinema’s visual game, realizing spacey, speculative ideas was all motion control and matte paintings. But in the realm of fright, something more sinister is stifling successful scares—a real lack of vision on both sides of the camera. The re-vampire tale 30 Days of Night won’t be doing anything to change that anytime soon.

This is a failed fright flick that is so inspired by Stephen King that the famous horror scribe should consider suing. You’d have to be blind as a kind of you-know-what not to see it: the strangely evocative setting; the stranger who arrives with portents of doom; the sudden disappearance of most of the population; a group of survivors huddled together, narrative self-sacrifice just around the corner for most of them; a last act standoff involving human bravery and some manner of supernatural deus ex machine. If that rundown doesn’t remind you of The Stand, Storm of the Century, Desperation, The Mist, or several other of the Maine man’s macabres, you haven’t been paying attention to genre fiction the last 30 years. This isn’t a homage—it’s downright literary heresy.

For the sake of clarity, here’s what happens. In the town of Barrow, Alaska, the sun disappears once a year for an entire month. The majority of the population takes off for more hospitable climes, leaving Sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett), a few of his deputies, and random individuals as caretakers of the one-horse burg. Through a standard storyline contrivance, Eben’s soon to be ex-wife misses her helicopter connection and winds up stuck in the city as well. Similarly, a series of freak incidents (cellphone bonfires, the death of all the sled dogs) has the remaining inhabitants a little unsettled. After he arrests the plot catalyst—a creepy outsider spewing omens of evil—some rather nasty neckbiters show up. For reasons that are explained but never fully fathomable, these creatures want to use the area as a foundation for future frights. It’s up to the soon to be survivors to rally together and save the day.

Don’t let those without a historical perspective in horror sell you otherwise—there is NOTHING new about this abysmally dull movie. The monsters are all carved from the same post-modern Euro-trash idea of evil, speaking a strange Eastern Bloc version of Klingon to prove how peculiar they are. Our hero is a good hearted man whose been misunderstood by everyone around him—including his wandering eye whore of a wife. The police station is manned by members of the Oleson family, including an all knowing granny and an apprentice hero adolescent brother, and the rest of Barrow is overloaded with quirky, shortcut backstory (loner, ex-con, secret yellowbelly) plot pawns. Put them on the cinematic equivalent of a Tru-Action Vibrating Football Game and watch them roam around randomly for 100 mind numbing minutes.

Granted, director David Slade, famed for helming music videos for the likes of Aphex Twin, Stone Temple Pilots, and Tori Amos, gives it the old film school try (though nothing here resembles the tripwire work he achieved with his Hitchcockian pedophilia thriller Hard Candy). There’s one particular shot, framed overhead and looking down at the town, that does a delightful job of following the blood-soaked melee between the vampires and their victims as it moves from building to building. There is also an excellent sequence where a snow plow takes on a collection of these throat tearing creeps. But for the most part, 30 Days of Night is extended scenes of dull dialogue that avoids anything remotely resembling context or clarity. Barrow itself seems locked in intriguing traditions and sunlight stifled rituals, but we learn little about such logistics.

Even worse, the characters are all cut from the same slab of uninteresting scary film sheetrock. Hartnett is supposed to be a good hearted, misunderstood figure, and his performance perfectly captures such a status. He is, without a doubt, the best thing about the movie. On the other hand, Melissa George misses the mark so many times as Stella Oleson that we keep waiting for the blood suckers to lock onto an artery and start sipping. She jumps from callous to conqueror—sometimes in the same sentence. As for the rest of the cast, it’s a who’s THAT collection of semi-recognizable faces, most notably Ben Foster as the Renfield without a cause and Nathaniel Lees as the local power plant operator. As for the villains, 30 Days does want them to be more than dimensionless fear factors, but aside from their Goth gang with dental issues design, they’re just a joke. The only thing frightening about their sudden appearance is their utter lack of purpose. Aside from the spraying of blood and ersatz-eternal darkness, we have no idea why Barrow, and why now.

Sadly, Slade and his crew aren’t providing answers. All they can manage is a little telegraphed gore (when we see a massive garbage shredder during the opening set-up, we just know a bad guy is doing a header into those mechanical teeth) and some inconsistent character interaction. There is a last act decapitation that’s incredibly brutal, and the finale will satisfy those who like their fisticuffs nice and noxious, but when you can’t get excited about the overall offal being offered, you know your spook show is failing. It could be the fact that we could care less who lives and who dies. No one character leaves enough of an impression to earn our consideration. Even worse, the vampires are just plain dopey. When they start infighting and squabbling in their native tongue (and they can speak broken English, mind you), you just want to slap them.

Again, it all comes down to uneven execution and subject matter redundancy. Halfway through this supposed reinvention of the genre, you’ll be wondering when Pennywise the Clown will show up. Of course, if and when he does, Slade and his scripters won’t do much with him. While some can argue over the less than faithful adaptation from the original graphic novel source material and complain that Hollywood loves to rip the teeth out of any and all horror efforts, 30 Days of Night suffers from many more motion picture maladies other than merely getting lost in translation. A town trapped in endless night being overrun by vampires has a nice revisionist ring to it. It also sounds like an installment from Hammer’s Vault of Horror (“Midnight Mess”, anyone?). Whatever the case, any novelty is short lived and inconsequential. There’s more blight than night here. 

by Bill Gibron

18 Oct 2007


INTO THE WILD (dir. Sean Penn)

INTO THE WILD (dir. Sean Penn)

Wanderlust. For some, it’s an innate human attribute. The desire to explore. The need to put distance between your ‘here’ and your soon to be ‘there’. It’s a concept so tied up in what supposedly made America great and won the West for the rest of us (cue visions of Conestoga wagons rambling across a purple mountains majesty) that it seems practically unpatriotic to question its aimless designs. Like Jack Kerouac uncovering the counterculture beat within a surreal conservative post-War world, to hippie hitchhikers who made the nation one big truck stop, we’ve always given the vagabond some metaphysical leeway. Even as their label has switched from hobo to bum to social eyesore, one’s ability to roam free of responsibility has inspired and divined. It’s so formidable that it’s become the basis for songs, literature, and even personal philosophies.

In his brilliant new film, Into the Wild, actor (re)turned writer/director Sean Penn focuses on such a modern day example of the fanciful free spirit. After graduating from Emory University, real life drifter Christopher McCandless cashed in his savings, sent it to charity, dispossessed himself of all other worldly excesses, and headed out to find America. Much to his miserable parents’ chagrin (and his baby sister’s accepting empathy), he trekked across the nation undetected, picking up odd jobs along the way to fund his adventures. After stop overs in South Dakota, where he worked at a grain mill, a West Coast jaunt with a pair of aging hippies, and a meet up with a widower ex-military man, he finally reached his goal—the deepest regions of Alaska’s wilderness. There, inspired by authors like Thoreau, he intended to live off the land. But survival proved problematic, especially for someone who only saw the freedom (and none of the responsibilities) of such a lifestyle.

Based on a book by Jon Krakauer and McCandless’ own diaries and writings, Into the Wild stands as the best movie in Penn’s limited career behind the camera. After the arch dramatics of The Indian Runner, the considered tone poetry of The Crossing Guard, and the anti-thriller excellence of The Pledge, the Oscar winning actor pools all his talents to take on one of those too good to be true storylines. In the McCandless saga, you’ve got familial dysfunction, interpersonal pipe dreams, psychosocial subjectivity, the call of nature, and the undeniable allure of the open road to transform a simple act of individual wish fulfillment into something far more meaningful. Laced with amazing visual stunts, standout performances, and a perspective of our nation that’s nearly incomprehensible, we wind up tramping right along with our wide-eyed hero. We experience his dizzying highs…and everything that countermands such living in exile delights.

Penn can’t do this alone, mind you. He needs an actor that expertly supplements the sumptuous visuals passing before the screen without getting lost—or worse, overpowering them. There needs to be a balance between fool and Renaissance man, master of one’s destiny and disturbingly unprepared plebe. The startling Emile Hirsch is that shape-shifting star, and his turn here is award worthy. Switching between wildly incongruent modes and balancing his inner perseverance with his outer obstacles, we get a performance so deep and dimensional that, even after two hours, we feel like we’ve barely gotten to know this intriguing individual. Hirsch has to hold us this way, since we no longer live in a society that validates the eccentric actions of someone like McCandless. One slip, and we too would join the harangue that questions his sanity, considers him spoiled, and wonders what his parents did to ever warrant such conspicuous rejection.

One of the great things about Into the Wild is that Penn leaves motives open for interpretation. The character’s actions are not fathomless—a voiceover narration gives us lots of juicy details regarding abuse, marital strife, and unrealistic parental goals—and whenever McCandless interacts with others, we sense a closed off antisocial stance that tends to explain his micromanaged decisions. Indeed, when he finally finds the Alaskan sanctuary he so desperately wants, our hero appears reborn. Gone are the expectations of the world. Stripped back to the very essence of existence, McCandless is forced to face up to the frontier. The fact that he then immediately commandeers an abandoned school bus (and all the camper friendly accommodations and comforts in it) begins Penn’s sly dissection of the character’s true intent. Indeed, Into the Wild isn’t so much about a need for isolation as a call for understanding and acceptance.

It is clear that McCandless did not get along with his parents. As played brilliantly by William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden, we see a nuclear family falling apart for reasons that are very specific and rather surreal. As with most suburban squabbles, it is buried beneath a veneer of high balls and a series of shattering behind the scenes breakdowns. These fuzzy flashbacks, meant to act as support for our lead’s longing, do a magnificent job of underwriting his angst. We are supposed to feel the same sense of disassociation that McCandless experiences, and Penn uses the sequences as fuel to push us, and his characters, along. When these moments appear, we prepare ourselves for the onslaught of information, and experience an unusual sort of calm when their purpose fades from view.

Also offering their own sense of motivation is the odd selection of individuals we meet. In typical road movie style, Into the Wild celebrates the breadth of human diversity by giving us several clear examples of it. In Vince Vaughn’s agricultural con man (he sells bootleg satellite TV set ups on the side) we see freedom as an illustration of minor lawlessness. In the Danish tourists camping along the Rio Grande, we see liberty as an expression of travel and open friendliness. For aging deadheads Jan and Rainey, it’s autonomy connecting to a fading vision of the ‘60s dream of peace and love. Catherine Keener and former rafting guide Brian Dierker are amazing as the bickering, somewhat settled couple. They inadvertently remind McCandless of all he left behind, frequently becoming indirect antagonists to his progress.

For retired Army man (and lonely father figure) Ron Franz, family is all there is to live for. He becomes our hero’s greatest test, a giving human being who has nothing but support and nonjudgmental warmth to give. Played by Hal Holbrook in a manner that belies his 82 years on the planet, we sense a real connection between the two, a grandfather/grandson dynamic that appears to heal the wounds McCandless is suffering from. But our focus is also a bone-headed young man, convinced that if he lets anyone in, he’ll have to face the self-produced demons he’s been suppressing all these years. One of Into the Wild’s clearest themes is that of escape. Everyone involved in this narrative is looking to get away—from their life, their past, their current situation. Only McCandless has the gumption to take said longing literally.

While we see his outdoorsy resilience throughout the film, Penn makes the wonderful decision to make the last act all about McCandless’ confrontation with the realities of the wilderness. It’s not so much a sequence about dreams shattering as it is about their initially deceptive impact on people. In his case, the desire to runaway to Alaska is the direct result of a more overreaching need to disappear into himself. For this character, it’s the only person that hasn’t let him down. Of course, fate is funny when toyed with. McCandless soon discovers how poorly prepared he is for a life all alone, and the finale is as heart wrenching as it is humble. While you can argue that it’s all a question of taking on nature and realizing who’s really boss, Into the Wild offers a more intriguing conclusion. Perhaps it’s possible to actually run away from it all. Maybe Christopher McCandless was not the proper candidate to try it.

With a final frame that’s devastating in what it says about the movie we’ve seen and the person whose story we’ve shared, Into the Wild suggests that film can actually survive the new digital explosion to remain a wholly artful medium. Penn’s proclivity for dramatic slow motion and epic environs never grows indulgent, and the performances celebrate the people being portrayed without dismissing their importance or place. Standing as a monumental achievement in the career’s of all involved, this is a film that will stand as a terrific entertainment, an intriguing character study, and a clever cautionary example. The next time you feel like getting away from it all, remember Christopher McCandless and his tireless dedication to such an ideal. Apparently, absolute freedom has a cost few of us ever consider. Such a price can place things in perspective quite nicely

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